Sunday, February 25, 2024

Borne Back Ceaselessly: TENET (70mm Re-Release)

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is forever a present-tense movie where its now meets the past. Talk about a temporal pincer movement. Here I am, in late February 2024, having just stumbled out of an IMAX theater where I saw Tenet on 70mm in its limited re-release. I’d seen the movie only once before, when it was freshly on 4K Blu-ray in late December 2020. But I feel like I’ve now really seen it for the first time. For a movie about heists moving forwards and backwards in time simultaneously, that seems fitting.

After my initial viewing I wrote: In Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, backwards run sequences until the mind reels. It’s a time travel thriller, but not like you’re thinking. It’s about a magic box that can reverse the chronology of an item—or a person. Reverse entropy, they say. Inversion. The plot concerns a secret agent (John David Washington) recruited to stop a snarling Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) from reversing the flow of time for the entire universe. That’d destroy everything, one reluctant ally (Elizabeth Debicki) is told simply and slowly. She considers it for a moment and solemnly intones: “including my son.” 

Yeah, that line’s still a clunker. But on a second viewing—and one on such a massive scale—it gets swallowed up in the massive machinery of the thing. I almost felt it as a small pang of the personal in the middle of the impersonal grinding inevitabilities of societal collapse. 

When first reacting to Tenet I wrote that it’s “simultaneously one of Nolan’s most logistically jaw-dropping and emotionally flimsiest.” I don’t agree with my past self’s math there. If anything the logistically jaw-dropping elements are even more apparent, stark and enveloping. Here it’sall go-go-go M.C. Escher timeline. Cause and effect are ruptured in boggling ways. There are stunts and combat and strategizing, with some elements of the action behaving unusually: a bullet hole filling up as the ordnance flies back into the barrel; tumbling fisticuffs that cartwheel with unnatural grace as one combatant flies backwards when they should be ahead; a car zipping the wrong way through traffic after rolling back over from a crash, windows reconstructing as tires squeal in reverse. 

This time, rather than straining against what I once took as the flimsy strains of emotionality within, I now found myself drug into the undertow of the sensation of all that dazzling craftsmanship and felt the animating melancholy under that surface chill. And the cool logic of its time travel convolutions are all the more compelling for the intuitive logic of it all. Why did I, along with the common critical refrain of late 2020, insist that the movie is convoluted or confusing? Maybe it just takes a second look to smooth out those wrinkles. The movie is nothing but logical, laid out on clear time travel tracks that need just a bit of mental energy to sort out—a bit of story problem graphing in the margins of your mind as the car chases and shoot outs rattle your senses. 

…there are agents rappelling up a building or spinning a sailboat or crashing a plane or maneuvering through a series or airtight vaults or hanging off the side of a moving firetruck to hop between cars. That’s all thrilling stuff. 

And within that logic, there’s that buried emotional core, contained in a glimpse of a future you’s freedom leaping into the ocean, or the hint of a beautiful friendship that may be ending with a violent abrupt foreshortening in the present, but the future will fill in the past. I found myself curiously moved by the movie’s consequences—rending cause and effect with regret, only to be joined again my the insistence of the montage, and its characters’ motivations. 

I came away from a first viewing with sheer admiration for its construction, its impressive scope, its grounding sense of tactile reality even as the effects slip sense away. This time, the sense was present. It’s perfect movie sense, one image and sound after the next building a persuasive fantasy vision of a twilight world, where time’s running out, and where the future grows dim but for the valiant efforts of those who hold out that dim distant flicker of hope. It’s strikingly photographed globetrotting, with the hero and his partner in spies (Robert Pattinson) dashing and capable in slick suits and big action beats. The pounding score and booming bass has a pavlovian effect—it’s exciting, and kicks up the energy of seeing a great Christopher Nolan movie… The me of 2020, with all the sociopolitical anxieties that assumes, and the lonely, isolated, individual TV viewing it implies, doubted it was a great Nolan film. The 2024 me, back in the world, in a crowded theater, before an enormous screen, and surrounded by massive sound, is sure it actually is. I felt like I met myself in the middle distance between then and now, on my way back to realize it then.

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